Thursday, 28 December 2017

Still on the road to recovery from intensive care

Intensive care. I can't help but keep thinking back to those two carefully chosen words, offered up by incoming Forest chairman Nicholas Randall to describe the club he was coming to.

In fact, the QC's open letter to fans in June is probably the most important document issued by the club in years. Reading it back now, halfway into the new regime's first season, the whole of this passage also stood out:
"Although we believe in aiming high, we also need to be realistic. The league table does not lie and, whether we like it or not, the club only just escaped relegation this season. To use the medical analogy the club is in intensive care. It is our job to ensure that we nurse the club back to health. It is rare in life for anything of value to come easily. So although we are all excited about the prospects for the club, we must make sure that each step taken is based on strong foundations. Furthermore, as with any journey in life, there will be mistakes made and some setbacks are also inevitable. We will no doubt stumble and occasionally fall, but we promise you that we will keep getting up again until the job is done."
This paragraph is pretty much the prism through which the whole season can be viewed and accurately outlines some of what we've seen since.

So, how are we getting on? Well, while Randall has been quiet since, you'd assume he'd have a slightly sunnier outlook for the club's medical condition.

Off the field, we feel like a proper club again. The commercial and marketing team has worked well, with smart offers and effective communication playing their part in helping to fill the City Ground. The efforts to reach out to fans and the community are also important and noteworthy. The change has been marked - and we've seen pretty much everything we called for in the chaotic mess of the Fawaz era be introduced by way of structure. The foundations Randall mentions have certainly been laid - we have to hope that they prove themselves to be strong when tested.

Am I wrong to still be a little worried about the allegations that persist around Evangelos Marinakis?  Clearly he should be treated as innocent until proven guilty, but there's a nagging concern that it isn't good for the club for him to be under question.

Yet off the field matters are, thankfully after the last couple of years, not primarily the cause of debate.

Results and points have, for me at least, been largely positive. After 24 games of last season we were five places lower in the table and five points worse off. In the calendar year to date, our league results read: P46 W17 D5 L24. Replicate that across 2016/17 and we'd finish with 56 points and in last season's table that would have been enough to finish 16th - again five points and five places better off. Given the steady downward trend under Fawaz, that's not to be sniffed at (and 16th in this division is our average league position this century).

Of course, football isn't about stats alone. Look beyond the numbers and it's fair to say that the team has shown flashes of real style. The QPR game was a joy to watch and, when it clicks, the larger City Ground crowds are treated to some exciting passing football - the sort of play we've often yearned for while under 'pragmatic' bosses such as Megson or Freedman.

Most of the signings made have been positive too. Instead of splurging money on the likes of Nicklas Bendtner, we've invested in younger, hungrier players with the capacity to improve (with the exception of the smart signing of Daryl Murphy to part-fill the Assombalonga void).

We've also continued to promote our academy stars. In some respects, the team has the feel of the early days of Paul Hart and we have to hope it bears similar results as the young players learn how to succeed in the tough environment of the Championship.

Yet, you'd be foolish to suggest everything that we've seen has been positive. The team loses far too many games and is, undoubtedly, in the midst of a sticky patch. Both within individual games - and within the season - they need to show the strength of character to get themselves out of a hole.

In many games, the team can fall flat - with matches such as Cardiff and Sheffield Wednesday at home petering out into tame defeats. The first goal is too significant, confidence a fragile commodity and ruthlessness lacking. All are predictable with a young side but all need work going forward.

The defence - and the protection is receives - is also a concern. We're on course to ship even more goals than last season's 72 at the current rate (one stat that doesn't point to progress). Conceding that many goals is always likely to undermine whatever you're doing at the other end. The biggest failure in the summer was the inability to significantly strengthen in this weak area. Mark Warburton and Frank McParland had seen what we were like last term and ought really to have acted. Of course they may have been outbid by some of the freer spending members of the division (the likes of Birmingham perhaps) and they may have been constrained by the still-significant straitjacket of FFP, but it'd be nice to see a defensive reinforcement or two come through the door in the next month.

It also feels like there's perhaps a lack of leadership on the field, with captain Michael Mancienne seemingly not the figure we need to rally the troops. I appreciate that not every side can have a Stuart Pearce but a stronger leader, in whichever mould, would be welcome.

Yet, while it's fair to raise these concerns I do feel that these are all 'growing pains' associated with the work needed to bring the club out of intensive care. These are the mistakes, setbacks and stumbles that Randall predicted. I personally feel we've shown enough potential and progress to suggest that these things can be overcome in time. Anyone who expected a top six challenge this season must have been smoking something potent.

But you only need to go on Twitter after a game to see that there are some who don't feel this way. Sadly, some of the level of debate after a game is childish. There are those who, whether they'd admit it or not, appear to wish they had Fawaz back. That way they could have their public mardy and be heard again. Maybe they became addicted to the knee-jerk soap opera off the field and miss their fix of drama? Opposition fans must read some of the posts and laugh.

There are clearly some who don't like Mark Warburton. I feel that might partly be down to his character. He's not a charismatic talker in press conferences and, for some it seems, that matters. If he could joke, bluff or divert his way through an interview in the style of a Holloway or Warnock you feel some might be placated. Most managers spout the odd bit of rubbish, but those who do it with a twinkle in the eye or through a catchy soundbite seem to get away with it more. As it is, people hang on Warburton's every word and become unusually irritated by the odd bit of jargon or management speak.

There are those who feel the style of play is foolish too. I feel he's certainly chosen a brave way to play - and definitely not the easiest path to success - but the potential for exciting, dynamic, stylish football is there. Get better at it - as Warburton's Brentford did - and we could be on to something special. As Randall put it: "It's rare in life for anything of value to come easily."

It's also worth bearing in mind the esteem with which the manager is held by the ownership. Randall's letter explicitly stated that the regime wanted to encourage a passing game and praised the manager for his work to move towards this. It promised him time and stressed: "We believe that in Mark Warburton we have not just a good fit but the perfect fit for the role of manager of the club."

If Warburton were to leave - something which is hopefully fanciful in the current moment - you feel that the regime would want another manager like him. The style of play and approach to transfers is here to stay, regardless of the man in the dugout. The FFP question still looms too - with the club clearly wanting to unearth bargain players who can grow in stature and, in turn, value. A chequebook manager wouldn't fit the bill here in the post-Fawaz era.

Much has improved since the 'intensive care' letter. We have, for me at least, shown a decent level of progress out of the ashes of a relegation battle and the sale of a star striker. But, you don't step straight out of intensive care and start running a marathon. The road to recovery is going to require more hard work and more patience.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Frustration as Forest suffer St Andrew's setback

In retrospect, one of the very first moments of Saturday's match at St Andrew's was highly significant. With barely a minute on the clock, the Blues' robust and hard working midfielder Maikel Kieftenbeld committed a foul on Tendayi Darikwa. Whether it was intended to lay down a marker or not, it did. Birmingham were physical, hard working and disciplined, we huffed and puffed but found all three traits tough to overcome.

This fledgling Forest side has a habit of starting sluggishly. We'd even had to overcome a ropey opening before steamrollering QPR last time out. On Saturday we were unable to settle before a Che Adams strike from a tight angle handed the advantage to the home side. It was an advantage we were never able to wrestle back - at least not in terms of the only metric that really matters.

Still, while Kieftenbeld's tough tackle might have set the tone for the home side, you can't help feeling that we contributed massively to our own downfall. A seemingly needlessly conceded corner from Mancienne and some sloppy all round play belied an early malaise that proved our downfall. Ben Osborn looked to have been fouled in the build up to the goal, but not before he'd already made a big error in giving the ball away. From his mistake, it was all-too easy to carve us open and for Adams to be presented with the chance he took with aplomb.

The shot-shy hosts had the worst goalscoring record in the league - and this was just the ninth goal of the campaign for them. It would have been interesting to see how Birmingham would've reacted had they not netted early on - you sense the tension on and off the field might have really worked in our favour. Yet, instead, we gifted them a goal and gave them something to hold onto and build from. At Hillsborough and Villa Park we'd also passed up the chance to twist the knife into a fragile host - it's a ruthlessness that we have to learn in this dog eat dog league.

We shouldn't denigrate the hosts for being physically strong. They played a (peaky) blinder here, getting tackles and interceptions in, being disciplined and breaking forward with purpose and threat. They might not have troubled Jordan Smith too much, but our defence could never rest on its laurels, particularly in the first half.

The likes of Kieran Dowell and Barrie McKay can learn much from tests such as this. Dowell is a gem of a player - as I've written before - but has to be stronger. He's a big lad and, in time, will learn to use his frame to his advantage. Only really Eric Lichaj in the Forest side seems to be able to use his body to shield the ball and keep an opponent at bay on a consistent basis. Eric's no giant and I'm sure he had to learn the hard way too.

Being physically strong as a team doesn't have to mean playing rough football - it's what allows you to impose yourself and dictate the way you want to play. In that sense, it's every bit as important to the success of Warburton's style as the silky passing and technique that his players have demonstrated at times.

All of these traits - being tougher physically, not letting an opponent off the hook and being alert from the opening whistle - need to be learned to give us a harder edge. If we'd had that edge and eradicated some sloppy play we'd have surely walked away with at least a 0-0 from Saturday's game. Indeed, we have to start coming away with a point from games that we can't manage to win.

Still, there's a danger that we let the result completely cloud our thinking. Ben Brereton's performance, for example, would've been viewed differently had the game been 0-0. What might've been labelled as a 'decent shift' became an 'ineffectual' performance through the prism of defeat. This was certainly a physical test for him. He might not always have been successful but it has to be hoped that days such as these will contribute to a learning curve for a player born in April 1999.

Brereton's deflected drive (from a delightful Dowell through ball), Dowell's long-range effort, Jason Cummings' late strike and a Zach Clough snapshot were all half chances and evidence that we were never out of the game. Yet, perhaps because we were behind, the play was often a little too rushed and we never got close to the passing groove of the Rangers romp two weeks before. While it's too much to ask for us to hit those heights every week, the style of play still offers a source of optimism and we weren't dreadful on Saturday - certainly not in comparison with some of the displays in recent years.

Yet, while it's clear to see progress in the cold light of day, that's not to say it's not intensely frustrating in the heat of the battle. When you know the players can do better - and have shown they are capable of much better - it's hard not to be left shaking your head at times. Many of the 2,800 travelling contingent were far from happy at the dogmatic insistence that every corner had to be taken short, for example. While I'm sure it made sense as a tactic - Birmingham would've had the beating of us in the air - it didn't really work and became predictable and easy to crowd out and defend. Could a clever run, a decoy or an accurate cross overcome a height advantage? Perhaps that's one to go back to the drawing board with.

Still, it's early days for this side. Like the beginning of the Paul Hart team, when David Prutton, Gareth Williams, Andy Reid et al found their feet, there will be frustrating afternoons to come. Hart's young guns came out stronger the other side, there's no reason to suggest that this bunch won't too.

The Championship schedule is unforgiving. Saturday should be a reminder, if needed, that there's much more for us to learn.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

The game that no-one watched: The last time I saw Forest at Birmingham City

I'm looking forward to joining the 2,800 travelling Trickies at St Andrews on Saturday but, as the fixture approaches, I can't help but think back to the time I visited the ground and a game that was momentous for a couple of bad reasons.

Photo by Florian Müller on Unsplash
While most sane people enjoyed a leisurely start to 2002, perhaps sleeping off New Year's Eve excess, I spent January 1 taking in the midday kick off between us and Birmingham.

The game had been shifted to noon in order to cater for the viewers of ITV Digital, which then had the rights to show second tier games.

When we arrived, it seemed touch and go as to whether we'd actually see any football thanks to the freezing weather. Yet, perhaps with a view to putting on a show for the visiting cameras, the hosts encouraged home fans to come onto the pitch and do their bit to clear off the frost and snow. We could merely watch - heaven forbid the away fans should get on the pitch and potentially clash with the Brummies! - and hope that the army of amateur groundsmen could save us from having ventured down the A42 for nothing.

Yet, if the grand effort was for the benefit of the TV cameras they needn't have bothered. That's because, while the 20,000 crowd might have appreciated the spade work, the official viewing figure for the fixture was zero. Now, apparently, a zero rating is given to any programme with fewer than a thousand viewers but, let's face it, that doesn't sound too impressive either does it? Basically, and probably sensibly given the timing, no-one was watching beyond Bordesley.

Was this the final nail in the coffin for ITV Digital? Who knows. It was certainly not an endorsement of its unpopular scheduling arrangements. Indeed, I recall that many anti-ITV chants were sung in that period in protest of games moved to daft kick off times. Oddly, there are now more games than ever moved for TV in the second tier and yet there's much less protest. Maybe we're more accepting now or maybe Sky's coverage is just better. One thing is certain: by May 2002 ITV Digital stopped broadcasting.

What did people miss? Not much in truth. I don't remember too much about the action - save for the fact that Stern John cancelled out an early Birmingham opener and that Jim Brennan missed an absolute sitter that could have secured all three points.

Yet the equaliser that day was to be the second reason why this fixture proved to be significant. The goal was the 14th of the season for the Trinidadian striker and also his last in Forest colours. John was finally finding his feet in English football yet apparently had a clause in his contract that would have triggered a further payment to former club Columbus Crew. Given our perilous financial predicament, we then couldn't afford for our top scorer to net another goal and, soon after, flogged the £1.5 million man for a bargain £100,000 to promotion-chasing Birmingham.

That's a tale that serves as a timely reminder of the mess we were in in the immediate post-Premier League days. Indeed, it was shortly after the 2002 Birmingham away game that we sold Jermaine Jenas to Newcastle too. While the folly of the Fawaz era left much to be fixed, it isn't the only time we've been in trouble. Indeed, as the excellent Steve Wright said on Matchtalk this week, we've never really been known as a well-run club. Nigel Doughty tried to mop up the mess of the 2002 era - and we owe it to him too to go one step further than he managed.

So, all in all, with fans mucking in to clear the pitch, no TV viewers and the sorry end for our top scorer, that game nearly 16 years ago left an impression. I'm hoping that Saturday is memorable for better reasons.

Oh, and while we're here, here's the starting XI for that 2002 game:

Ward, Vaughan, Brennan, Hjelde, Scimeca, Williams, Prutton, Summerbee, Jenas, John, Lester. Subs: Johnson, Roche, Bopp, Thompson, Gray.

Feels a long time ago doesn't it?

Monday, 30 October 2017

Diamond Dowell: A vision of the past and (hopefully) the future of Forest

Take a bow Kieran Dowell. The Everton loanee took centre stage at Hull on Saturday night and delivered a high quality hat trick that brought home all three points. Dowell's performance in this game, and the season as a whole, offers us some key lessons in the way the team is developing.

You only need watch Dowell for five minutes to see that he is a player of some pedigree and style. Yet, while that is often the case with young Premier League loanees, Saturday's sensational showing provided that there can be substance to his game as well as style.

In football, the term 'luxury player' is one of those mis-used clichés. Too often it's only really used to mean 'inconsistent' or 'ineffective'. It's why I'm a little annoyed with myself for starting to fear that fielding Dowell in a red shirt might be a luxury we could ill afford. In the soul searching that inevitably follows a Derby defeat, I'd begun to ponder whether we needed grit and hard work in that number 10 role to make ourselves tougher to beat. Yet, it's never a luxury to have a player who can pass, create and score.

Don't get me wrong, not every game will be Dowell's. Warburton is trying to build a squad of players to suit the varied circumstances which emerge in a Championship season - and the likes of Clough, Carayol, Cash might well all find a stage to showcase their talents. It's healthy too that we aren't pinning all of our hopes on one talisman. But, this fixture showed why it is worth having some patience with the likes of Dowell - when it's his day, we're in for a treat - and we might even be witnessing the start of a very special career. Many Everton fans told us we were in for a treat with Dowell - and some wished they'd kept him. They'll no doubt be keen to have him back.

The comparison made by Bandy & Shinty with Ian Woan is a good one. There will be times when people feel Kieran isn't working hard enough, is being lazy or is drifting out of games. Those are easy criticisms to make of wingers and/or playmakers who are in the side to bide their time and produce the one or two moments in the game that are decisive. It's probably not the likes of Woan, Andy Reid or Dowell who are lazy - it's us for jumping to that often-wrong conclusion.

In many ways Dowell symbolises the team at the moment. There's much promise, flashes of brilliance, some rookie errors and signs that improvement is being made. If he and the team can grow together then that can deliver the progress we're all hoping for. The good stuff is enough to buy a little patience during the off days and anyone who thinks otherwise is daft.

I think we underestimate how tough it must be to just slot into positions such as his - and that filled by Liam Bridcutt. The team as a whole is having to learn to play a new style. Bridcutt was suddenly thrust into a role in which he's receiving - and having to make - a lot of passes with no time to get used to his team mates. Similarly, Dowell is playing a role that requires vision, accuracy, a cool head and a bit of strength and will only really work if the rest of the team functions around him. Sometimes it's said of mercurial players that they only perform if the rest of the team is performing. That might be true, but maybe it's also the case that they can only perform if the rest of the team does its job. Dowell - or any creative player - is every bit as reliant on service as an old fashioned number nine is on crosses onto his forehead.

I have to admit I was guilty of looking at Kieran Dowell very early on and thinking 'there's a proper Forest player'. Yes, I know, that's the sort of arrogance and delusion for which Forest fans are ridiculed by our rivals. In truth, he represents what a 'proper Forest player' used to look like - the sort of classy, composed, stylish-but-unshowy passer we probably took for granted 'back in the day'. These days, our club is no longer really defined by that style. What even was a typical Forest player of the last 10-15 years? We've lurched, largely unsuccessfully, from one to another too many times to be summed up by any style.

Perhaps, then, it's more accurate to say that Kieran Dowell epitomises what we want a 'Forest player' to be. Just as the 'Warburton Way' promises a passing style that we'd love to be renowned for. There's a long way to go yet, of course, but these feel like admirable goals. Just, indeed, like Dowell's three at Hull.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Forest Five Asides: Matching Montanier, Twitter, new style, defender shopping, old boys

I try not to get too carried away by league tables until ten games have been played. Until you've played a decent range of teams both at home and away it's impossible to judge what constitutes a 'good start' but now, having reached that landmark, it's worth seeing where we're at.

Memories of Montanier

A total of 12 points from ten games means we've achieved exactly the same tally as this time last season (although the points came from three wins and three draws a year ago). The comparative calm off the field - and lack of a Burke-shaped deadline disaster - does still give hope that things might not turn as sour as they did under Phillippe Montanier. The Frenchman's reign was just another in a long list of false starts, but it's not just the points total that feels familiar. An inability to keep things tight at the back and a struggle to find a settled starting lineup do, to some extent at least, continue.


None of that means I'm 'calling for Mark Warburton's head'. In fact, I can't help feeling that barely anyone really is. It seems these days that a few angry people on Twitter probably get a little too much attention and I've seen many more posts denouncing the 'Warburton Out' cries than I have genuine calls for his removal. Surely only a tiny minority would actually want to see the manager sacked at this stage? The vast majority of fans had modest ambitions for the season and, despite a run of five defeats in the last six games, there's no need to panic and presume that these can't be achieved. Indeed, anyone prone to panicking ought to have 'we stayed up on goal difference on the last day of the season and then sold our top striker' printed out and stuck on every wall of their house as a timely reminder. There's a long way to go.

Yet it's easy to see how one or two tweets can become a 'story' which, in turn, creates a skewed impression. Especially in a click-bait era in which cheap 'Twitter reacts' stories are churned out on an all-too-regular basis. Twitter can sometimes end up in a race to the bottom, with the most outrageous views getting shares and attention, and no-one is ever willing to admit a rash comment made in the heat of the moment was misplaced.

The Guardian's Football Weekly podcast remarked on Monday about the fact that Forest fans had been venting their frustrations on Twitter, which made me wince a little. It'd be a shame if we became known as 'one of those' fanbases that overreacts at every twist and turn. I mean, we're not Liverpool, right?

That's not to say that I'm calling for us all to be nodding dogs who slavishly go along with the 'regime'. Forest are making plenty of mistakes at the moment, and it's clearly fair to be worried about this. I think Seat Pitch summed up the balance to be struck in a piece this week, arguing:
"It doesn’t mean anyone is beyond criticism. It doesn’t mean we meekly stand by and watch a side give away soft goals week in, week out.But it does mean we’re in a process of renewal. It does mean that we trust the owner and the manager to have a plan and to stick to it. It does mean that there will be ups and downs."

Building from the ball, not the back

It's fair to say that the Warburton Way isn't going to be easy to adopt. He wants to develop a system that, by its very nature, will take longer to bed in. He certainly doesn't seem to have adopted the mantra of 'build from the back', in which received wisdom suggests you focus first on setting up a solid defence before anything else (although, conversely, 'build from the back' is what his sides do quite a lot!).

He prefers, it seems, to try to build a style that dominates possession - 'building from the ball' if you will. We shouldn't be afraid of new ideas and plenty of better teams than us try to starve the opposition of the ball. You can't, after all, concede if you're in charge of possession.

The challenge now is to avoid giving the ball away cheaply, learn how to cope with teams who put us under pressure by pressing high up the pitch and to become more dangerous on the ball in the final third. It's a different way, but that doesn't necessarily make it the wrong way. We've shown tantalising flashes of getting it right so far, if we can click then we might well be able to produce some exciting football.

Defender shopping

Still, a defensive recruit seemed an absolute must after last season's troubles and I can't help wondering if he regrets not prioritising this position now. Let's hope Frank McParland is scouring the leagues as we speak and can unearth another gem. His track record so far suggests that he's up to the task.

The current mob might've been tighter defensively under Dougie Freedman but we're not going to be playing 'Freedman football' under Warburton and it seems wishful thinking to me to think that they're good enough in the long run (although I hope I'm wrong, obviously).

Old Boys

If you needed a reminder about how long we've been out of the top flight then it was perhaps sobering to consider the case of Ryan Sessegnon on Tuesday night. The Fulham man wasn't even conceived, let alone born, when Forest last played a Premier League game.

I once used to fashion fantasy football teams from ex Forest players in the top flight in a vain attempt to cling on to our connection to the big time. I found out recently that I'm not alone - other fans of ex top flight teams have, apparently, been known to adopt a similar tactic.

But, could you even muster a Premier League XI from ex Reds now?

This is the best I could manage: Darlow, Kane, Bertrand, Lascelles, Morgan, Chalobah, Ramsey, Ince, Antonio, Burke, Akpom. It's a stretch given the number of loanees, that Todd Kane is a Chelsea player in name alone and Chuba Akpom is a footballer in name alone, but there you go. Did I miss anyone?

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Daryl Murphy and the men who love to play against Forest

Daryl Murphy's arrival at the City Ground does at least one thing. He won't - barring a 'Bendtner at Derby' moment - be scoring against us this season.

The former Newcastle and Ipswich man has five goals in ten games against Forest (including both goals in 2014's 2-2 draw below) - his joint best record against any opposition (although his five against Rotherham came in just five games, so it's a shame they've disappeared down the trap door).

Since I love a good stat that got me thinking about who else always seems to do well against us, the pesky players who save their best for the times when they're up against the Tricky Trees.

Thanks to the superb resources of the Transfermarkt website I was able to satisfy my curiosity. So, here are the men who have their career best goalscoring ratio against Forest:

Rudy Gestede: He's netted seven goals in seven games against Forest, tormenting us with his strength and aerial ability for Cardiff, Blackburn and Aston Villa. He's back in the division with Middlesbrough now, although the arrival of a new £30 million strike force in the North East might at least spare us from seeing him on August 19th if he's still there. His next best tally is four, against Birmingham, so we're far and away his favourite side to play against.

Matej Vydra: The Czech striker might have drifted around clubs since his arrival in England, but his failure to settle down hasn't dampened his enthusiasm for playing against Forest. He has eight goals in seven games, including Derby's first goal in the 2-2 at the City Ground in March, and two assists.

Darren Huckerby: Huckerby's loan spell at the City Ground was a joy to watch, even if it was a huge shame that we never made his move permanent. It was also a welcome change from seeing him put Forest to the sword. He has seven goals in five games against us, his best record against any side. Included in that tally were two hat tricks - one for Coventry in 1999 and one for Manchester City in 2002.

Matt Le Tissier: While Mark Crossley might have been the only man to save a Matt Le Tissier spot kick, the skilful Saints man more than made up for that with eight goals in nine games against us. He scored eight against Aston Villa too, but took 15 games to chalk them up.

Sam Vokes: Burnley are one of those sides who always seem to have the better of us in recent times. It's perhaps no surprise, then, to learn that Vokes' most prolific finishing has been against Forest, with eight goals in 14 games.

Jonny Howson: The Leeds, Norwich and now Middlesbrough midfield man loves a goal against Forest. His tally of six goals (in nine games) is double his best against anyone else.

DJ Campbell: Just hearing his name is enough to give me shudders after 'that' play-off performance for Blackpool at the City Ground. He has six goals in seven games against Forest in total, with three assists.

Stephen Dobbie: Speaking of play-off goalscorers (must we?), Stephen Dobbie also makes this list. While he has a better tally against some teams north of the border, Forest is his favourite English club to play against - with four goals in ten games and three assists. He's also never lost any of those ten games he's played against us. He can stay in Scotland.

Tommy Smith: The tricky Tommy Smith is yet another of those players whose name you hate to see in an opposition line-up. A consistent performer over many years, he has five goals in 12 games against Forest, with four assists. He has also put five past Reading and Coventry, but those have come in 14 and 21 games respectively.

Jason Wilcox: Wilcox was more known for setting goals up than putting them away, but the talented winger plundered five in his eight games against Forest. Two came in Blackburn's 5-1 win at the City Ground in 1996.

While those are the men who have their best goalscoring record against Forest (for recent times at least), there are others who also relished the chance to play against us but just so happen to have a slightly better record against someone else.

Last season's loanee Ross McCormack, for example, has eight goals in 14 games against Forest. That's his joint best tally - but his eight goals against Charlton came in just nine games.

Alan Shearer's career best record came against Leeds - with 20 goals in 20 games - but he plundered ten in nine games against Forest. Of the teams Shearer played five or more games against, Forest is the only one he didn't lose to.

Then there's Gregorz Rasiak. He has seven in seven games against Coventry - but did manage five in four games against Forest. Robbie Fowler scored six in seven appearances against us, Ian Rush scored 10 in 24 and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer netted six in four including that ridiculous four-goal salvo as a sub in the infamous 8-1 home thrashing by Manchester United in 1999.

Dwight Yorke scored five times in nine games, Glenn Murray has five in seven, and Chris Wood five in eight, his second best tally.

Anyway, since the season hasn't even started yet let's at least look on the bright side. With Murphy on board we've at least snared one nemesis. I'll admit that I haven't always been his biggest fan in the past but his capture makes a lot of sense in the context of our current predicament and could turn out to be an astute bit of business to accompany the up and coming attacking talent on the books. The numbers also speak for themselves. His good record against Forest has come at a time when he's been one of the second tier's most consistent scorers. Let's hope he can spend the season finding a few new victims to prey on.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

The two words that sum up my ambitions for this season

The week before the season starts is, traditionally, the week to get carried away. This is the calm before the storm, the period where blind faith and boundless optimism take over and when we dare to dream. To misquote Del Boy: "This time next year readers, we'll be playing the billionaires."

Still, while every fan should be allowed to dream, there's a difference between hoping for/wanting success and expecting it. Anyone in that latter camp ought to take in this cracking stat I saw tweeted by @ForestRav:

The fact that our average position post Premier League has been 16th in the second tier should serve both as a timely reminder of the level we've been performing at in recent times but also, as the man says, be a useful benchmark going forward. I genuinely think we've got the makings of an exciting young squad but we can't expect too much too soon - and finishing above 16th would put us above our average and show we're heading in the right direction after five seasons of continual downturn under the Fawaz regime.

Yet, while this might be a useful statistical target to judge ourselves against, there are other important measures that we should gauge the success of the season by. Points and positions clearly matter, but there's more to ponder in 2017/18 too. Last season I made seven targets for the season (safe to say we didn't do too well) this my ambition boils down to two words: stability and entertainment.

It's time for stability

Yes, we've been saying this for some time, but it really is time we had some stability at the City Ground. We need the new off-field managerial structure to establish itself, clean up any mess left behind by the previous regime and start making more of a success of the commercial side of things. The club needs to conduct its business in a professional way and to regain and retain the respect of fellow clubs as well as businesses in the Nottingham area. It also needs to involve the fans in a meaningful and appropriate way.

On the pitch, we need to end the season with the same manager - a feat not managed since 2010/11 and Billy Davies' first regime - and be able to consistently perform at a level that ensures we're clear of the relegation zone as a minimum. We need to try to stem the constant flow of injuries to the playing staff too.

The signs so far have been positive on both fronts but there's still a lot of work to do.

Talented side could provide entertainment

Establishing stable foundations for the club is essential. However, I'm also hoping for an entertaining campaign. I've got a lot of faith in Mark Warburton's ability to fashion a side that plays an attractive brand of football and can give anyone at this level a decent game. I think he's starting to piece together a decent squad that can achieve this too.

Following Forest has rarely been dull but often for the wrong reasons. If Warburton can send out a stylish passing team, we'll be interesting to watch for the right reasons again.

It's fair to say that the wider public expect little of us this season. While the odds vary, the bookies put us way down the list of promotion candidates - and suggest we'll be nearer the bottom of the league than the top. That's hardly surprising since we only stayed up on the last day of the season and have since lost our star striker. Being under the radar is certainly no bad thing.

If we finish above 16th we'll have had an above average season statistically. If we have a season of stability and provide some entertainment then we'll have been successful. Until Friday, we can but hope...

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

It ain't who you sell, it's the way that you sell 'em

Picture the scene. You score lots of goals, but concede even more. You end up finishing just outside the Championship relegation zone on 51 points. You've been through managerial turmoil - including caretaker management - but are now set to start a season with the man who ended the last campaign in charge. Promisingly, the manager is someone who has done well in the second tier before. Now, however, your free scoring star striker has just been sold to a side that has come down from the Premier League and is flexing its financial muscles thanks to its parachute payments.

Forest? No, that was Fulham this time last season. Clearly, it'd be foolish to think that Mark Warburton's men can follow in their footsteps and mount a play-off campaign just because the position of the clubs has parallels. However, Slavisa Jokanovic's Cottagers have shown that astute management, momentum and a combination of smart buys and up and coming prospects can come together and exceed expectations. Their success also goes some way to showing that the sale of Britt Assombalonga need not be a complete catastrophe.

Britt's £15 million transfer to Middlesbrough is hardly cause for celebration. The former Peterborough man's goal record speaks for itself; he's a natural at finding the back of the net. To lose him to a fellow Championship side is disappointing and - as Paul Severn's Seat Pitch article outlines - demonstrates the disparity between clubs that is furthered by Financial Fair Play and the rules surrounding parachute payments. We might be in the same division as Middlesbrough but we're barely in the same league financially. This is also Fawaz's legacy, however. While the rules are poor, a large part of the blame lies with our own for failing to build a club worthy of earning such a windfall. Boro are reaping the rewards of being well run.

But there were two questions to be answered about Assombalonga if he stayed at the City Ground - was he fit and did he fit. The first is perhaps a little unfair. I'm sure he's had a good pre-season and is in decent shape for the coming campaign. However, it's only right to say that there's a nagging doubt over his ability to perform at his peak on a regular and sustained basis post-injury. We might well have had to have a 'plan B' in mind for any games he'd have to miss anyway.

Did he also fit into Warburton's ideal line-up? I'm sure the manager is smart enough not to turn down the use of a proven goal scorer but I'm less sure that Britt would be his ideal main man. You get the impression he'd much rather have a more mobile centre forward, someone who offers more outside the box too. If the sizeable transfer fee can be used to further shape the squad into Warburton's style, then we might see progress. We might even have enough money to enhance other parts of the squad too.

Not only that, but there's also the question of Ben Brereton. I still live in fear that we'll lose him too, especially after his summer exploits in an England shirt, but there's no denying that he's shown an incredible talent in his breakthrough year. At times last season he was already outperforming Britt and you felt that he was eventually shoved further wide to accommodate his more experienced team mate during the relegation run-in (albeit sensible in the circumstances). If he continues to progress at the rate he showed last season, he'll be a better player than Britt by the end of the season and no-one should be put in his way to hold that progress back. Maybe this solves a selection headache?

Yes he's young and we should temper expectations, but if you're good enough you're old enough and boy did he look good enough at times last season. After being robbed of the chance to see Oliver Burke for long, I'd love to have a season of Brereton in a Forest shirt. You'd hope that he'd rather get games under his belt that rot in a vast Premier League squad too.

With the bitter experience Burke, and before him Michail Antonio, it'd be easy to become downhearted at a third summer transfer window in a row in which a star player is sold off. Yet this departure feels different. The club has negotiated the best price it could - given the release clause in his contract - and sold on a player who wanted to go. From what we're led to believe, Mark Warburton knew of this decision and has worked with the new structure at the club to draw up a list of replacements. In comparison to those last two big summer sales - in which we were subjected to Antonio being withdrawn from selection and finally sold on deadline day and Burke flogged behind the manager's back with no plan for a replacement - it's a case of so far so good.

Now, however, comes the first big test of the new managerial structure. Clubs will know we've got a bit of cash to play with and our rivals will be shopping in the same market. We'll soon see how much of that money is re-invested, how good Frank McParland's contacts book is and what sort of player we're able to attract. It isn't about who you sell - it's about what you do to replace them that matters most.

Britt might have his critics - and his faults - but I enjoyed watching him in a Forest shirt. His goals against Derby, his cheeky charm and ruthless streak, his fairytale finish against MK Dons and his swansong against Ipswich will all leave fond memories. You can hardly blame him for going to a club which should challenge for the title and which will certainly increase his pay packet.

We now need to build a club that doesn't have to sell star players, especially to sides in the same division. If we're sitting here next year without a fourth successive big name departure, we'll know that progress is being made. We also need to do something that this club hasn't always been great at doing - and replace a key player in a way that doesn't affect the team. The new regime offers promise that we can achieve this but it won't be easy. Those in charge at the club can at least take inspiration from Fulham's last year.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Forest Five Asides: Cummings and goings, the magic number, fixtures, Worrall

Here we are, slap bang in the middle of the off season - a time when a picture of some grass or a lick of paint on the stand is lapped up as the nearest we're going to get when it comes to news. Yet things aren't totally silent on the banks of the Trent. Here's my latest 'five asides'...


For starters, we've already made our first signing of the summer. The capture of Jason Cummings from Hibs is refreshing for many reasons.

Firstly, it's done and dusted nice and early and doesn't come after a tawdry game of cat and mouse and a couple of 'derisory' bids to test the water (or alert our rivals to the target's availability). It's also a fairly low fee - given the going rate for strikers at our level these days - for a player clearly known to Mark Warburton and Frank McParland from their days north of the border.

Cummings looks to be a confident character and should relish the chance to prove himself in England after 20-plus goals in each of his last three seasons in Edinburgh. At 21 (he'll be 22 by the time the season kicks off), he's also an up and coming player who can fit nicely into the squad we're trying to build and a far cry from the Bendtner-style vanity signings of the previous regimes.

....and goings?

The transfer rumour mill is in full flow. Amid the torrent of tiresome fake 'in the know' accounts and the duff clickbait gossip it's hard to work out which transfer titbits are genuine. Still, it does appear that Middlesbrough - with parachute payments burning a hole in their pockets - are interested in Britt Assombalonga. It'll be interesting to see if they do bid and, indeed, how serious their offer is.

Personally, I resigned myself to the fact that this might well be the window when Ben Brereton is snapped up by a Premier League club some time ago. We couldn't really stand in his way if that were the case - especially given that he was in the youth set up at Manchester United and Stoke before coming to us. He's destined for the top flight, with or without us.

I'd be gutted if either of those two left. Britt has a proven track record at this level and it'd be nice to see at least some of Ben's progress in a Forest shirt. Still, we have to be realistic. We survived by the skin of our teeth last season and might still need to make some money to avoid another FFP embargo while the new management team gets to grips with the mess they inherited. On and off the pitch we're not in a position to compete once a certain calibre of club joins the race.

If either did go, it'd be important to show some patience. It wasn't so much the sale of Oliver Burke itself that annoyed me last season - it was the fact it was done in a way that gave the manager no chance to plan to replace him. If Warburton loses a star, he needs the time, money and support to find a suitable successor. You'd like to think the Marinakis regime would give him that.

I wouldn't be surprised if we saw interest in Ben Osborn this summer either. Newcastle have apparently kept tabs on his progress and will have a decent transfer kitty to play with.

The magic number

Still, let's not dwell on all of that just yet. Want a positive? How about the fact that Huddersfield Town finished the 2015/16 season on 51 points and are now plotting trips to Old Trafford, Anfield et al? Fulham finished the same season with 51 points and also made last season's play offs. That just so happens to be the points total we amassed last season.

While I think it'd be far fetched to suggest we should aim for anything more than mid table in a tough division - both Huddersfield and Fulham have shown that you can quickly make progress at this level if everything clicks.

It's also worth remembering that we netted 62 goals last season - which is more than either Huddersfield or Sheffield Wednesday scored in their play-off campaigns. Just a shame about the 72 conceded at the other end eh?

Awaiting the fixture list

Tomorrow morning sees the release of the 2017/18 fixtures. It's the day when we all get a little too excited about the order in which we'll have to play every team twice, subject to Sky buggering it all up. Still, I'll freely admit that I always get caught up in the hype, especially when sniffing out the chance for a cheeky away day. If the computer could deliver nice convenient dates for games at Barnsley and Hull that'd be great. Yep, I know how to live...

Captain Marvel

It's worth ending with some praise for Joe Worrall. Fresh from a breakthrough season at the City Ground, he did us all proud by captaining England Under 20s as they won the Toulon Tournament in Provence. Joe was also named in the team of the tournament and was officially the competition's second best player.

As if that wasn't impressive enough, Joe also told the
“I’ve played a lot of first-team football this season which put me in good stead to come here and captain England, which I didn’t think I’d do but of course I’m very proud to have done that. 
“So to captain England is brilliant, it’ll give me more experience to go back to Forest and maybe get the armband there one day."
It's great to hear Joe talk with such passion about the club and the armband surely beckons if he can continue his progress next term.

I'm excited to see just how good he can be - and intrigued to see who might be next off Gary Brazil's conveyer belt of talent.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Marinakis makes postive impression with both actions and words

The bitter experience of the last five years has turned us into an odd bunch of fans hasn't it? Most sets of supporters who crave a takeover probably want to hear their new owners talk about spending big in the transfer market, with grand plans and big targets. We, on the other hand, went misty-eyed at the mention of a chief commercial officer, chairman and CEO.

This sweet sensation of structure, having been a rudderless ship in rocky waters for five long years, meant that Evangelos Marinakis and Sokratis Kominakis announced their arrival at the club this week with immediate action, not just words. With one statement they managed to put in place a professional-looking hierarchy for the club, something Fawaz and co never seriously managed.

While I'm not going to pretend I know Nicholas Randall, Ioannis Vrentzos or David Cook, their biographies show that they are people with real substance who know both how to run football clubs and how to run commercially successful operations. Both of these fundamental skills were completely absent under the old regime. In some respects this trio, alongside Sam Gordon, have a blank canvas on which to build a new business and, with their credentials, should quickly be able to make an impact.

In fact, in many ways, they already have. Remarkably we're heading into the summer with a shirt sponsor, a clear drive to sell season tickets (with a savvy discount for the existing supporters) and a new home shirt launched and up for sale. Again, fans of other clubs probably look on from afar with amazement that these things are such a big deal but, alas, that's where we're at. The tone and frequency of the promotional emails I began to receive after Gordon's appointment can only have helped to boost attendances and demonstrated a much-needed professionalism.

Marinakis' words were also encouraging. Yes, he clearly wants to get to the Premier League but he made no daft promises about when we might achieve a return to the top flight and he appeared to have understood the scale of the challenge if we're to match his ambitions.

On the playing side of things we have a manager and director of football in place who have a good understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the current paying squad - as well as an appreciation of what is needed to succeed in this division. Both seem to have been drafted in with a fair bit of input from the new Greek ownership, meaning that we won't have to go through more managerial upheaval now that we're under new ownership (something that completely ruined Birmingham's 2016/17 campaign).

You only need to re-wind 12 months to appreciate what a difference this all makes. While we might have ended the campaign on a mild high - with a joyous returning goal from Britt Assombalonga - we went into the summer with no manager, no CEO, no scouting network and no plan to recruit new players as we emerged from a long transfer embargo. The summer was dominated by the attempted takeover - by Marinakis - and we were left with a slightly haphazard attempt to embrace a new continental style managerial structure with Philippe Montanier and Pedro Pereira, which was doomed to fail while Fawaz remained at the helm.

This time, we have a manager and director of football who don't need time to adjust to the division and the time and infrastructure required to have a more strategic approach to the transfer window. None of that means success is certain - but we've witnessed what happens without these foundations in place.

Indeed, we've all seen that the general off-field failure of the Fawaz era completely undermined any of his stated ambitions on the pitch. I've long thought that, no matter what we've seen in the last couple of seasons, we're further away from being a Premier League outfit off the field than we are on it.

Marinakis' statements seem to show that, while he knows he can't guarantee becoming a Premier League team next season, he can put in place the foundations that mean we start to look like a Premier League club in waiting off the field. He's reaching out to the wider community to listen to fans, businesses and academics in the city - rather than just seeing what people are saying on Twitter - and wants to bring former players 'into the tent'. You'd imagine that's not just a sop to the fans - but also a smart PR move to involve people with a big media profile who could otherwise end up being vocal critics.

Some fans, rightly, are nervous about the allegations previously levelled against Marinakis. Indeed, it does appear that questions about his activity in Greece got in the way of him buying the club last year. We shouldn't condemn someone who hasn't been, to my knowledge, found guilty of an offence but nor should we ignore the need for some caution amid the joy of Fawaz's departure.

The Fawaz years ought to have taught us not to take everything we're told at face value and to challenge the club to deliver on its promises. While what we've seen so far has undoubtedly been impressive, it's still worth being vigilant with the people in charge. Through the advisory council, fans have the opportunity to have a voice and this needs to be used in a constructive way. Fans can be critical where necessary while still being supportive of the club and treading this fine line well could be as key to the long-term success of this new regime as anything else.

Still, while we shouldn't allow ourselves to get completely carried away, there are plenty of reasons to feel positive. We have the right manager (who wants to play attractive football) and the beginnings of a good squad who, together, managed to just about secure our status in the second tier. They will be supported by a director of football with a track record for astute buys and a football club that looks set to be operating on a professional footing at long last.

Next season won't be easy. All three relegated clubs should be strong at this level, Sheffield United and Bolton should be better than Wigan and Rotherham and the likes of Villa, Derby, Leeds and Cardiff will all be expecting to come stronger. The target for the club, as Marinakis says, has to be to be better than last season. That means we're likely to need to improve substantially even to make modest gains in our league standing.

We've got a long way to go to get where we want to be but, for now at least, we should be buoyed by the fact that everything is in place to at least start the journey. Let's hope that this time next season we're even more optimistic about the future of the club.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Heaven knows I'm not miserable now: Smith's stunning save sets up vital win

Jordan Smith, take a bow. The outpouring of relief that greeted Forest's safety-securing 3-0 win on Sunday might well not have been possible without the 22-year-old stopper's intervention.

I'm sure you'll all have seen it by now but it's worth stressing just how good his save at 0-0 was. Smith has looked remarkably assured for a man who only made his Football League debut on February 11, but this was something truly special and deserves to be remembered for a long time to come. The way he contorted to adjust to Dominic Samuel's deflected effort and claw the ball onto the bar with his left hand was sensational. Mark Warburton felt it was world class.

In a season full of rising stars, Smith shouldn't be ignored. We really don't need to go shopping for a replacement for Dorus De Vries any more, Jordan looks the real deal and the unlucky Stephen Henderson will have to make do with being his deputy.

Anyone who thinks that our safety was never in doubt on Sunday is kidding themselves. With news coming in that Blackburn and Birmingham were both ahead, the impact of a goal for Ipswich could have been devastating for our fragile confidence levels. Especially since we had looked disjointed after having to take Muzzy Carayol off through injury early on. Jordan's fingertips kept us in the fight and set up everything that followed.

Britt Assombalonga then seized the moment by stepping up when we needed him most. His penalty calmed nerves on and off the pitch and he then came out in the second half with the bit between his teeth. Not even a missed spot kick could knock him off course as he dusted himself off and thundered in his second of the match - and 30th goal for Forest - soon after to set the seal on an excellent win. He was purposeful, powerful and tireless in working for the cause, leaving high hopes for more of the same next season.

But, in between Britt strikes, came another big moment to savour. You can't fail to be overjoyed for Chris Cohen. There must have been some dark moments during the long road back from each of his three serious knee injuries but here he was with a well-earned day in the sun. His left footed strike might have been deflected, but it whistled past Bartosz Bialkowski in emphatic fashion and sent the vast majority of the 28,249 crowd into raptures. As moments go, it was reminiscent of Julian Bennett's piledriver against Yeovil.

Joe Worrall headed and kicked everything, Jamie Ward was a pest and earned two penalties and David Vaughan came into the game in the second half to add composure when and where we needed it.

I tweeted at half time that Jordan Smith's save might turn out to be the most important since Shilton's title-winning heroics at Highfield Road. Of course, we won't really know the significance of this result until further down the line. Sunday has the potential to be the launching pad for a better future if we can take the bull by the horns in the summer. We've got the makings of a decent squad, a good manager/director of football combination and the prospect of more professional ownership on its way. Sunday's game was an opportunity to secure Championship status; this summer is the opportunity to start making proper progress towards a better future.

For now though, it's time to breathe a sigh of relief and reflect on the positives of the completed rescue mission. There are some killjoys who will tell you that survival isn't much to celebrate. It is when it was so perilously close to being lost, however. And it all started with 'that' wondrous save...

Monday, 1 May 2017

Fragile Forest need to find some fight for 'Survival Sunday'

Well, that's another fine mess we've landed ourselves in. With a depressing familiarity, Forest slumped to an away defeat at QPR and left us facing a nerve-biting 'Survival Sunday' clash against Ipswich. Two threads have been constant amid the chaos of 2016/17: a failure to capitalise on good results against big teams at home and an inability to dig out a result away from home. Both continued at Loftus Road and both could yet cost us our place in the Championship.

Sunday's clash is the biggest game at the City Ground for some time. Indeed, the last play-off semi-final against Swansea six years ago probably wasn't quite so pivotal. It threatens to be a nerve jangling affair, especially given the prospect that we could, technically, win and still go down. Indeed, it could even pan out that both us and Blackburn lose and we still switch places.

But, freak permutations aside, this is one last chance for us to earn our place in the second tier for next season. We've blown the golden opportunity to bury Blackburn at home and the chance to win at QPR and make life more straightforward. In a season defined by missed opportunities - on the field and off it - this one really has to be taken. Momentum is with a resurgent Rovers but we do, still, have home advantage in our game (thank goodness), a better goal difference and the benefit of having scored more goals if it comes to that.

However, I don't know about you but I'm not overly confident. The fact that the game is on Sky and a 'Kids for a Quid' fixture only ramps up the pressure. It's probably a sentiment that rests more on fear than fact but neither strike me as positive omens. Memory of our performances in the 'big occasion' play-off home games weighs heavy too.

More importantly, however, is the fact that this is a fragile team that has frozen on so many occasions this season. After the kamikaze early days under Montanier faded, we've often looked overcome by panic and dread when we've gone behind in games. Ipswich aren't a great side, let's be honest, but they probably have all of the attributes that we lack. They're organised, tough, streetwise and are a more coherent team put together by an astute manager. They've only won the same amount of games as us this season yet they've earned enough draws to be clear of safety. Yes, they lost to Rotherham and have been beaten by Lincoln this season, but they also recently put Newcastle to the sword. If we let the occasion get the better of us on Sunday, they can easily punish us.

Indeed, a friend of mine said a few weeks ago that he feared a Luke Chambers and David McGoldrick inspired victory on the final day, two ghosts from the past coming back to haunt us in the worst possible way. Maybe it'd be apt if Mick McCarthy, a man who turned down Fawaz right at the start of his tenure, were to put the final nail in the coffin at the end of his failed ownership?

Of course, it has been suggested that Evangelos Marinakis will be taking over regardless of what happens on the pitch against Ipswich. There's perhaps even a train of thought that suggests that relegation wouldn't, therefore, be the disaster that it would be under Fawaz. That's a dangerous mentality.

Firstly, there's absolutely no guarantee that we'd come straight back up. We didn't last time and neither did the likes of Sheffield United. For every Bolton, Leicester and Norwich there are plenty of examples of clubs who have floundered in the third tier. League One was a heck of a slog last time - there's nothing to suggest that it won't be just as tough again. It'd be far better, in my view, to build ourselves up in this league as Brighton, Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday have all done.

Secondly, let's not get carried away about Marinakis. Would relegation really not matter to him? Until the deal is signed and Fawaz is finally gone nothing should be taken for granted. The events of the last year should show that. Surely the only attraction of buying Forest is the vague prospect of getting the club up to the rich boys playground of the Premier League anyway? Maybe there's no risk that the sale will fall through, I'd rather us not create an excuse for it to do so though.

Finally, the core of young talent at the club might well be broken up by a relegation. We lost the Paul Hart academy core before, let's not allow the Brazil generation to be scattered across other clubs. I'm tired of having to be happy for our prospects when they thrive elsewhere - it's time that we built a club and a team fit to capitalise on the academy's ground work. The vultures are circling, safety makes it easier to get rid of them.

Yet, oddly, you do feel that there's light at the end of the tunnel if we could somehow stumble over the finish line. This manager, with this batch of young players and fresh ownership (with the right structure and backing) could well put us on a positive course. This team is more talented than the miserable Megson flops but it just lacks some key characteristics. On the days when it clicks, we can all see that there is 'something' there - but the current situation risks stamping out that spark of promise before it can develop. We're at a big crossroads and Sunday might well decide which path is taken.

One of the main problems is that Warburton has a big squad but little resembling a balanced team to pick from the mishmash of players he has inherited. Yes, there's plenty of talent, but there are also lots of flaws - with many players lacking experience, fitness, form or all three.

It's such a shame that the post-embargo shopping has been so awful. Indeed, our transfers were probably better when constrained by the FFP straitjacket. It says much about the club that only one of the five January deadline signings is in with a chance of starting on Sunday. That window was one of the many, many missed opportunities we've had - a chance to shop for players to plug gaps in the playing staff not waste time and money on ridiculous loanees like Joao Texeira who will never see the light of day.

Still, it remains the case that there should, just about, be an eleven in there with the ability to overcome Ipswich. The question might be whether or not we're ready mentally to overcome the occasion. There will be much talk in the build up to the game about this being like a 'cup final' yet the stakes are higher. Defeat won't just bring the disappointment of a missed opportunity (another one) but could define the club for years to come.

There is of course one other hope. Maybe Mark Warburton's good work with Brentford will have laid the foundations for his old side to beat Blackburn and do him a favour? The sad truth is that this might be the best card left in our hand on Sunday. Still, I'm not fussy. Safety, however it comes, is all that matters.

A nervous week awaits before the big game - for everyone from the players to those of us who persist with this daft old club come rain or shine. We can, of course, do our bit on the day to roar them on. There's a chance to seize the moment and create an occasion that we can look back on as a turning point. It could be a day for young guns to come of age and to set off into the sunset for a positive future. The grim alternative is the stuff of nightmares and might well give us a few sleepless nights in the next week.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Forest Five Asides: QPR, Marinakis, Mancienne, Lichaj, Villa

Starting a new blog format at the end of a season might not be the brightest idea I've ever had but, nevertheless, I'm doing it anyway. My new 'Five Asides' posts will aim to give a short, sharp views on five key talking points to fit between longer rants/posts. Well, that's the theory anyway.

Any comments, thoughts or suggestions are always welcome...

QPR and the ghost of Megson

The trip to Loftus Road tomorrow brings back bad memories of the last time we were relegated to League One. The 2-1 defeat in West London put the final nail in the coffin, confirming our pathetic demise. Worst of all, I went down to the game on a supporters' bus that had the BBC's Natalie Jackson among its passengers. It meant that we had to hang around in a car park while she conducted her post match interviews, leaving us to stew and fester for a while on the fact we'd fallen through the trap door before we could go home. It was grim. No-one was really in the mood for a 'looking forward to League One' vox pop on the way back either - it was time to pretend to sleep.

The fact that QPR is our penultimate game this season too isn't, of course, the only parallel with that last relegation under Gary Megson. The Derby home and away results were identical in 04/05, Rotherham also went down that year and it was also a season in which just two away wins were earned (those, like the two this season, were also both in the same week).

The positive thing is that we now have a better manager and a better team. The 04/05 lineup was: Gerrard, Curtis, Morgan, Taylor, Melville, Robertson, Evans, Powell, Gardner, Commons, Dobie. If we can stumble over the line, there might be light at the end of the tunnel.

The ghosts of 04/05, our record against Holloway teams (3 wins in 15) and the pitiful away form this season mean that I still can't rest easy when it comes to survival though.

Takeover talk as the Greeks wait in the wings

It seems that the takeover of the club is edging closer - although it also seems like we've been saying that for some time. Sky Sports today reported the fact that Fawaz is going to sell the club to Evangelos Marinakis but it's not really clear if this was based on anything that we didn't already know from other media outlets. ('Sky Sources' covers a multitude of sins doesn't it?) 

There are question marks over the Greek investor, of course, but the fact that he's run a club - and a big one at that - suggests that things should surely be better under him than the current regime. We've had a lot of false dawns, let's hope this isn't another. The club is at a crossroads - again. Survival and new ownership could give us a huge boost going into the summer but neither is certain.

Need to be convinced by Mancienne

I'll admit that I'm not exactly bowled over by the news of Michael Mancienne's new contract. I wouldn't have been at all bothered if we'd have let him go when his deal came to an end in the summer. He's got a great pedigree but I've been disappointed with his performances and always worry that we'll concede a goal from a cross when he's in the lineup. The fact that he's struggled to establish himself - even over a converted-to-centre-half Danny Fox - isn't a ringing endorsement either.

It is a positive, however, that he appears to have taken a pay cut (since he was rumoured to be on £25k a week or so) and it might well be the case that Warburton can get more out of him and utilise his talents in his style of play. One thing is for certain - we've got to stop messing about with him in midfield.

Eric The Red deserves the crown

While voting for the official 'player of the season' carries on until Wednesday, many supporters club branches seem to have opted for Eric Lichaj as their choice and the American will surely take the main crown too? It might seem odd to say that in a season in which our defensive record has been so poor but I do think Eric deserves the nod. He's been consistent, has given his all and provided leadership at times when things threatened to go off the rails. He looks like he loves to play for us, provides a decent attacking threat when given the chance and has even bagged a couple of goals. Frankly, we could with a couple more characters like him.

Who are the only other contenders? David Vaughan? Ben Osborn?

Let's hope the award isn't as much of a curse as it has been in recent times, though. Of those last five winners, Garath McCleary, Michail Antonio and Dorus de Vries all left pretty quickly, while Chris Cohen and Andy Reid both suffered serious injuries not long after earning the title.

Would Villa's fans rather they lost?

Aston Villa did us a decent favour by beating Birmingham on Sunday. Interestingly, having put their city rivals in the mire, they now travel to Blackburn to take on the team directly below the Blues. I wonder how many Villains actually want their side to lose tomorrow to pile more misery onto Harry Redknapp's men? For our sake, let's hope the team isn't 'on the beach' anyway (although it worries me that the influential Mile Jedinak looks set to be missing for them). The hope same goes for Huddersfield, who go into their game against Birmingham merely waiting for the play-offs to begin.

I really don't want a nerve-jangling last day and, while I appreciate that we need to pull our finger out and get the job done ourselves, any more favours will be more than gratefully accepted.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Pinillos peach plunders sweet point as Warburton plots Forest rescue mission

It was the new haircut that did it. Perhaps. Daniel Pinillos, the freshly shaven headed Spaniard, headed home the sweetest of injury time headers to let loose a roar of joy and relief around the City Ground. Muchas gracias Dani.

Maybe one day, we'll view the Pinillos goal in the same vein as 'that' Blackstock finish against Bristol City. There's still a long way to go - but it certainly felt like an important moment. Not least because it helped to ensure we didn't face a two week international break consigned to the bottom three to lick our wounds.

New boss Mark Warburton now needs to use the next fortnight to plot how he'll keep us out of the drop zone come May. He'll have plenty to ponder after a fiery first taste of the East Midlands derby.

In some respects, he can save himself a lot of research time by just re-watching this game as it pretty much summed up the season so far. Energy, endeavour and promise followed by a lack of ruthlessness, little or no control and an underlying fragility all mixed in with just enough spirit to give us hope of avoiding a bigger mess.

While we didn't create bucket loads of chances in the first half, we had at least approached a game of this magnitude with the right mindset. The experience and guile of Cohen and Vaughan gave us a good launching pad and the twinkle-toed talents of Zach Clough were there for all to see. What a player he could be and what a joy it is to be cheering Clough goals at the City Ground again. Not least in 'El Cloughico'. Apt indeed.

Ben Brereton also took to his task impressively. Stationed on the right, he ensured that Martin Olsson - a classy player who has tormented us in these fixtures the past - was given a big test all afternoon. It's performances like these that convince me that Ben is destined for bigger things. The maturity and skill he showed, despite being 'out of position', belied his tender years. At times in the second half, he was the only hope we had to cling to. You can't help feeling (and fearing) that he'll very quickly be too good for this level.

The subplot to the game had, of course, been the arrival of new men at the helm of each side. Gary Rowett's presence in the away dugout was especially intriguing since he was said to have been the man that John Jay Moores and co would've installed as Forest boss if Fawaz hadn't pulled the plug on the takeover. This could have ended up as one long 'this is what you could've won' cruel Bullseye-esque display, although that was somewhat diluted by our own capture of Warburton.

Rowett certainly rallied his troops well at half time. They came out for the second half with the sort of energy and drive that we'd showed in the opening 45 minutes - and we now froze and showed exactly why we're so dangerously close to bottom three, with a performance suddenly strewn with errors and nerves. Vaughan and Cohen struggled to regain control and Russell, Johnson, Bryson and Ince stepped up their influence, smelling blood.

No-one was surprised at the identity of the scorer of the equaliser surely? Matej Vydra now has eight goals in seven games against us - more than he's scored against any other team. When David Nugent doubled the advantage I can't have been the only one fearing the worst.

The frustration at having let our grip on the game slip boiled over when the superb Clough was taken off, to be replaced by Ross McCormack. His removal did seem a little premature - and the Villa loanee certainly struggled to fill his void - but the jeers that greeted the substitution were harsh on Warburton. Still, let's put that down to the heat of the moment, in the context of a game and a season that were slipping away before our eyes. In a far-from-ideal world, far-from-ideal things happen.

Luckily, a defeat that then seemed inevitable didn't materialise. The fact that it didn't was down to a few key factors.

First, came Jordan Smith's intervention. He made a couple of crucial saves to minimise the deficit - the best coming from an Alex Pearce header. Like Brereton, he's come in and looked like he's already been in the team for ten years. With him and Henderson, there's no need to go shopping for goalkeepers this summer.

Next, enter Matty Cash. Unfairly maligned by some in recent weeks, Cash came on to give us fresh legs in place of Cohen. But 'fresh legs' is an understatement. He came on like a man possessed, pressing players and driving forward with the ball, pushing us on for that one last chance and grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck. He was instrumental in the move that led to the goal and deserves great credit for his energetic cameo.

Apostolos Vellios also made a difference when replacing an out of sorts Assombalonga. He was close to writing his own name into folklore with a superb turn and shot that struck the inside of the post.

Smith, Cash and Vellios all did their bit, but it was up to Ben Osborn and Pinillos to seal the dramatic late point. Osborn whipped in an inviting dead ball, Pinillos did the rest. Cue pandemonium and surely the best full length of the pitch goalkeeping celebration from a Forest player since Mark Crossley against Spurs in the cup.

Warburton has much to sort, but he'll have known that anyway. He needs a fit Eric Lichaj for a start and the return of Jamie Ward from suspension - both of which might have given us more balance, solidity and experience (despite my reservations about Ward). On top of that he needs to try to engineer a threat from the flanks. Brereton did well on Saturday but his long term future lies in the middle. The new boss will need to try to get something from Carayol or the lesser spotted Ariyibi or Texeira - even if it's just as subs to help stretch a game.

There's also the question of Assombalonga. He might look in poor form but, equally, I can't remember us creating a proper chance for him in a while. Britt's a player who thrives off getting goals. You feel that if he can get one, he'd have a spring in his step with his build up play.

What can be done with McCormack too? He's got the talent to fire us to safety, but we're yet to look like we have a clue how to use him. Is fellow Villa loanee Tshibola ever going to be fit for the battle? How do we kill games off when we're on top? What can we do to keep more clean sheets? How can we turnaround the torrid away form.

Good luck with all of that Mark. That's some in tray with just eight games to go. In the meantime we'll be staving off the boredom of the international weekend by watching that equaliser on loop.